Obama Admin. and Congress push USDA to allow poultry industry to "self-inspect"
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.
In the last State of the Union message, President Obama promised—in the spirit of bipartisanship and picking up some of what he said were constructive suggestions from the other side of the aisle, was going to issue a order to his various regulatory authorities to lessen regulation, make it more efficient and more rational, he said. Well, one of those changes is going to affect the chicken you eat. In order to boost production, the speed of chicken assembly lines, by about 25 percent, slaughterhouses are now going to more or less be able to inspect the chickens themselves and reduce the number of government inspectors by about 75 percent. So is this good for business? And how is it for you when you've got to eat this chicken?
Now joining us is Tony Corbo. He's the senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food and Water Watch. He's responsible for food-related legislative and regulatory issues that come before Congress and the executive branch. Thanks for joining us, Tony.
TONY CORBO, SENIOR LOBBYIST, FOOD AND WATER WATCH: Well, thank you very much for having me.
JAY: So first of all—so what's wrong with this plan? It sounds—they're going to produce more chickens. And I understand in an L.A. Times piece about this that in 20 sites that were checked as a test case on this, in other words, 20 slaughterhouses that were to be self-inspected, if you were, that it wasn't really any worse than the plants that were being government-inspected. So what's wrong with this plan?
CORBO: Well, what's wrong with it is that it's essentially a privatization of food inspection. The 20 plants that have been running this pilot project since the late '90s really have not shown that they can really do the job as effectively as having full government inspection, regardless of what USDA is saying.
JAY: Well, how do you know that?
CORBO: Well, their own data show that when you take those 20 plants—and they tend to be 20 of the largest chicken plants, chicken slaughterhouses in the country—if you compare them to comparably sized plants that have not been part of the pilot, the plants in the pilot project have actually had higher salmonella rates than the plants not participating in the pilot. So the argument that they're making is that this is going to improve public health, when actually their own data show the opposite is going to happen.
JAY: Well, the objective didn't seem to be to improve public health. The objective seemed to be to improve the speed or rate of production or increase productivity, but at least in theory without sacrificing public health. And you're arguing that's not the case.
CORBO: That is not the case. And they constantly say that this is to improve public health, when really the bottom line is that the government is going to save upwards of $90 million over the next three years through the elimination of 8,800 USDA inspector positions, and the industry stands to gain $260 million a year because they'll be able to increase their line speeds and they'll have less regulation to deal with.
JAY: Now, why does it increase the line speed? In theory, if their self-inspection is equal to the government inspection, it should take the same amount of time. Why isn't it?
CORBO: Well, in the pilot project, in the pilot project the plants have been able to get waivers from the government on line speeds. Right now if—in a government-inspected plant where you have full government inspection, each inspector is responsible for up to 35 chickens per minute. And what this proposal will do is that it'll eliminate that regulation. So they'll be able to run the line speeds at 175 birds a minute and turn over a lot of the inspection responsibilities over to the company employees to perform.
JAY: So how do you inspect chickens at 135 chickens a minute? I don't get it. If I understand correctly, now the government inspectors are actually looking at and inside each of their chickens. And how are they going to keep doing that if the line speed's so much faster?
CORBO: Right. And the thing is that in a slaughterhouse that has full government inspection, you have USDA inspectors who are looking at all sides of the chicken, they're looking inside the cavity of the chicken, to see if there's any fecal contamination. What this proposal will do is they'll station only one USDA inspector at the end of the line. And the way they've set up the pilot project, which they're going to continue in this proposed rule if it gets finalized, is the inspector will stand looking only at one side of the chicken, not being able to look on the inside of the chicken. So you're going to have contaminated chicken going into the marketplace.
JAY: Now, I suppose the industry's argument would be that there's no evidence that chickens need to be so inspected, that there isn't such a problem. I mean, what's the issue? Is salmonella infection going up or down these days?
CORBO: Well, the thing is that salmonella is a major issue. Over a million people get sick every year from salmonella. A lot of it comes from animal products, and in particular poultry. And what the industry is assuming is that it's—the consumer has to cook it out. You don't eat a chicken raw or you don't eat it rare. You cook it thoroughly. So it's up to the consumer to essentially kill any salmonella that still may be in the chicken. And this is the rub.
I mean, if the government were really serious about reducing salmonella, they would increase regulations. Right now, salmonella is not considered to be an adulterant in food. They need to go to Congress, this administration needs to go to Congress and ask for the authority to declare salmonella as an adulterant to reduce the levels of illness attributed to salmonella.
JAY: Now, apparently there's a whistleblower sent some—who was an actual private inspector and worked for the company, and he apparently has said that there's a tremendous pressure on them to not stop the line—in other words, if you want to stop the line to pull a chicken out if there's a problem. And I guess that's the underlying fear here, that when this gets privatized, then you get a kind of pressure put on those employees that you couldn't in theory put on government inspectors.
CORBO: Right, because the company employee is going to be beholden to the company. It's not going to be beholden to the government or to the consumer. So the bottom line for the company is the bottom line. So the more chickens they can run through the system, the more money they're going to make. And so there's an inherent conflict of interest of what this proposal will do.
JAY: So where is this at now in terms of process? Is this totally in the realm of the regulatory authority and they can do one way or the other? Does Congress have something to say about it? And where is the process?
CORBO: It's actually in both hands. Right now, the Congress, the—. This is how this proposal came about. The Republican House of Representatives forced the USDA to expand the pilot project to include all of the chicken slaughter facilities. The main mover of the proposal in the Congress is Congressman Jack Kingston from Georgia. He is a strong ally of the poultry industry. So he pushed the Obama administration into expanding the pilot project. And they then proposed a regulation back in January to implement the expansion of the pilot project. So it's actually in two hands.
Right now, the proposal—the comment period closed last week, but we're still urging people to write letters to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack opposing this proposal. And we're also asking people to send letters to their members of Congress asking them to stop the pilot project, because the bottom line is, if the Congress doesn't appropriate the money for full government inspection, they're going to privatize the inspection process.
JAY: I see. So the Obama administration can change the regulation, but the money for the inspectors in the final analysis has to be approved by the House.
CORBO: By the Congress, yeah, by both House and Senate. But, again, the prime mover have been the House Republicans on this.
JAY: Right. Now, has there been any pushback against this from the Obama administration? Or just they're going along with it? I mean, on the face of it, it doesn't seem to make a heck of a lot of sense.
CORBO: There doesn't seem to be a push back from the Obama administration, but we have heard that they did not anticipate the pushback that they've gotten through the proposed regulation. Over 150,000 comments have been filed against [incompr.] for the most part against this proposed regulation. So the thing is that we're going to have to change the dynamics within the White House on proceeding [incompr.] we think is a misguided regulation.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Tony.
CORBO: Well, thank you very much.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.